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January 25, 2000

Is There Adequate Monitoring of Air Quality in Mobile County?
ADEM Official and Environmentalists Disagree

by Edmund Tsang

Mobilians may believe air quality in the County is deteriorating. But the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) has stopped monitoring for nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead, and decreased the number of air quality monitoring stations in Mobile County -- from fifteen sites to nine -- because it believes the air is cleaner now than in the early 1970s when air quality standards were set by the Clean Air Act passed by the U.S. Congress. Statewide, ADEM monitors for six air pollutants (particulate, lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and ozone) in addition to acid rain as mandated by the Clean Air Act.

According to Ron Gore, chief of ADEM's Air Division, the reason lead, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide are no longer monitored in Mobile County is because the concentrations of these substances in ambient air are much lower than the air-quality standards set by the Clean Air legislation. Gore attributes the decrease of lead, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide in ambient air in the United States to the phase-out of leaded gasoline and the introduction of catalytic converters in automobiles. Gore said those are the same reasons why the number of monitoring stations for sulfur dioxide has decreased from eight sites prior to 1980 to just one site now.

"Mainly we have learned after 25 years of monitoring that the ambient air concentrations are nowhere near the air quality standards," Gore said in a telephone interview last week. "There is no sense in spending taxpayer's money to continue to monitor for these substances when they aren't really necessary. We know what pollutants to monitor and where to do the monitoring."

Gore cautioned that cleaner air in the U.S. is "not true universally." In some large urban centers during the winter, such as Denver, New York City, and Houston, concentrations of air pollutants are near or even exceed the air quality standards. "That's not the case with Mobile and Birmingham."

Gore was asked why ADEM has stopped monitoring nitrogen dioxide and decreased the number of monitoring sites for sulfur dioxide when the Barry Steam Plant of Alabama Power Company has been cited by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for violating the Clean Air Act. "ADEM has no problem with sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emission from Alabama Power," Gore said. (ADEM, on behalf of the State of Alabama, is in fact a party in the lawsuits against EPA to prevent the federal environmental agency from enforcing tougher air emission standards on old power plants such as Alabama Power Company's Barry Steam Plant.)

Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Bay Watch, said she takes issue with ADEM regarding air quality in Mobile. "Nitrogen dioxide is clearly not diminishing," Callaway said. "As for the other air pollutants, maybe they are down nationally, but has ADEM showed us that the numbers here in Mobile County are down?"

Callaway not only disagrees with ADEM regarding the number of air-quality monitoring sites needed in Mobile County, she contends that the monitoring stations operating right now are placed in the wrong locations. "Every one of the monitoring sites are placed south of the majority of industrial facilities," Callaway said. With wind coming mainly from the south, Callaway said she wonders about the effectiveness of the monitoring stations too assess air quality of Mobile since they are placed in the "wrong directions" from potential polluters.

Margie Welch, president of Mobile Bay Sierra Club, said she does not think ADEM is doing an adequate job in monitoring air quality in Mobile County. Welch noted that while industrial activities in south Mobile County, especially around the Theodore Industrial Park, have substantially increased since the early 1990s, the number of air-monitoring sites in Theodore and southern Mobile County has actually decreased -- see table on air monitoring sites in Mobile County.

"Not only are there not enough monitoring stations, the things that we monitor as well as the things that we don't monitor bothers me," Welch said. "There is no attempt to find out about the impact of the combined outputs from various plants. That worries me."

The Prichard air quality study carried out in January, 1999 by EPA measured air toxins not monitored by ADEM, and the results may be more illuminating than ADEM's efforts regarding air quality in Mobile County. Dr. Kenneth Mitchell, the EPA scientist who performed the analysis, wrote in his report that "[E]specially noteworthy is the presence of chlorinated hydrocarbons and aromatic hydrocarbons in all samples, including the control locations. In addition to these compounds, aliphatic hydrocarbons, aldehydes and a few other miscellaneous compounds (isopropanol, carbon disulfide) were also detected. With regard to those chemicals that exceeded a human health-based screen benchmark, all (with the exception of acetaldehyde) are either chlorinated hydrocarbons or aromatic or aliphatic hydrocarbons."

Although Mobile industries have reduced the amount of TRI pollutants from 70 million pounds to 20 million pounds during the 1990s, Mitchell noted that many of the compounds that exceed a conservative health-based screen benchmark detected in Prichard in early 1999 "were also reported as released to air in 1996 by TRI facilities within five miles of Prichard [data from 1996 are the most recent from TRI that are available]." Under the Community Right-to-Know provision of the Superfund legislation passed in the 1980s, industries and companies that produce, handle, or store certain hazardous chemicals are required to file Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) to EPA.

While acknowledging the "caveats" because of limited sampling data, Mitchell concludes that the Prichard air quality study "does provide adequate evidence that a potential threat to public health may exist." (See Harbinger, Vol. XVIII, No. 5, Nov. 2-15, 1999)

Dr. Stephen Schaffer, professor of pharmacology at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine who teaches toxicology, said chlorinated hydrocarbons are suspected carcinogens. While not all aromatic hydrocarbons such as toulene are toxic, other aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzene are highly toxic to human.

After Mobile County was placed on "Red Alert" regarding health hazards of ozone pollution in 1999 and the medical profession has lobbied the city and county governments regarding air pollution, a task force, co-chaired by Mayor Mike Dow and County Commissioner Sam Jones, has been charged with determining the quality of air breathed by Mobilians.


Ambient Air Monitoring Sites in Mobile County

Locations of each air quality monitoring site that ADEM has operated in Mobile County since 1972. It shows the pollutant(s) monitored at each site, and the dates the monitors operated.

  Years of Operation
Site PM2.5 TSP PM10 Lead SO2 NO2 CO Ozone Acid Rain
State Dock Administration   72-78              
General Bullard & Airport Blvd.   72-74              
Brookley Cafeteria   72-80              
Axis Dead Lake Road, Mims. Residence   72-79              
Theodore Gas Company, Hwy 90   72-73              
P&S Bldg., 248 Cox St.   72-79 91-95 81-89 74-77        
645 Dauphin St.   72-73   72-75, 77 72-77 73-76      
802 S. Wilson   72-78     74-77        
Hartley Rd.   72-78              
JC Penny, Springdale Mall   73-74              
Little Sniffer, Canal & Lawrence   73-78     74-77   75-78 74-76  
Salco, Cain's Service Station   74-79     74-79     77-79  
Theodore Industrial Park   75-92     75-86     77-81  
Phillips Residence, Lauren   78-79           80  
Myrick Fire Station, 406 Joachim St.   85, 90 90-96            
Chickasaw, Azalea & Iroquois         74-77     82-  
Chickasaw, St. Thomas School 99- 72-73, 78-88, 90 88-            
WKRG   72-90 85-   72-80 72-73 72-74 73-77  
250 St. Joseph St., Downtown   78-84, 86-89 88-89, 97-            
Library-University of South Alabama     97-            
CC Williams, 1600 Yeend St.     97-            
Axis, US Hwy 43         80-     80-  
Brewton Center                 85-
Bay Road 99-             99-  

PM2.5 = Particulate Matter <2.5 micron
PM10 = Particulate Matter <10 micron

Source: ADEM


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